October 09, 2018 News & Features » Cover Story


Heeding the Call: A piper, who is also a doctor, keeps an Irish folk tradition alive 

click to enlarge Jarlath Henderson

Jarlath Henderson

As a leading virtuoso on the fiendishly difficult uillean pipes, the Irish variant of the bagpipes, and an emergency room physician, Jarlath Henderson is an inspiring rebuke to the time management skills of normal mortals.

He started on his instrument when he was 10, studying at the Armagh Piper's Club, a nonsectarian haven of folk tradition in the strife-torn United Kingdom counties of Northern Ireland. He comes from a musical family. His father was a piper and his mother and sister are singers, the latter with a successful career of her own.

"We're not the Von Trapps," Henderson says. "But it is something that we all did." The Piper's Club was full of veterans sharing their knowledge and other kids eager to learn.

In 2003, he became the youngest-ever winner of a BBC Young Folk Award, launching a demanding touring and recording career that delayed completing his medical education by a year. "Everyone said you have to choose, but I didn't want to," he says. "It was a vocation. You have to feel like you are doing all you are able."

Henderson is also a fine guitarist and clear-voiced vocalist. The uillean pipes are inflated by an underarm bellows rather than lung-powered tube of the more familiar Highland bagpipes. In addition to an intuitive, multirecording partnership with Scottish border piper Ross Ainslie, Henderson's worked with a wide variety of Celtic and other musicians, including appearing on the soundtrack of "Brave," the Disney-Pixar animated hit.

"I do what I am attracted to," Henderson says. "A lot of times, I feel I am doing too much rather than focusing on less and doing more. But I could never settle."

His approach is anything but hide-bound, as shown by his 2016 release "Hearts Broken, Heads Turned," a canny mixture of centuries-old traditional songs and 21st-century electronic instruments. The Folk Festival performance will be acoustic, but his intent is not re-enacting. It is the difference between being an artist and a curator.

"It's an album of folk songs," Henderson says. "But it is not folk music."

For the festival, Henderson is billed as performing songs of his native Northern Irish county, but the truth isn't quite so simple. From his early days playing, meeting other young players from the British Isles, he realized that they shared the same songs. That's not really a surprise, given that the purpose of culture is to disperse, to transcend borders, to infiltrate and influence, blend and evolve. The dynamic is between the context of all that has come before, and the forging of a singular, individual voice.

"I don't want to do what is safe and easy, to just create some new form of library," Henderson says. "The tradition is alive and well."

Jarlath Henderson performs Friday, Oct. 12, on the Altria Stage from 7:45 to 8:45 p.m. He performs Saturday, Oct. 13, on the Community Foundation stage from 3 to 3:45 p.m. and on the Lyft Stage from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m. He performs Sunday, Oct. 14, on the Costar Stage from 1:45 to 2:30 p.m

Back to the Unofficial Guide to the Richmond Folk Festival


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